It’s been two weeks now since Demos released its controversial white paper on mutual fund fees to a torrent of favorable mainstream media coverage. Unfortunately, judging from the series of follow-up articles in the financial press, it looks like those mainstream reporters failed to undertake the usual fact-checking.
As reported on this site and other outlets, once they had the opportunity to fully vet the paper, industry groups questioned the papers conclusions and methodology.
A BenefitsPro article showcased the view of the ASPPA while a FiduciaryNews.com article offered the opinions of the ICI and BrightScope’s Mike Alfred, both of whom claim the Demos report incorrectly used their raw data.
The point of this essay, though, is not to rehash what’s already been said about the Demos report, but to ask broader and more important questions: Why can’t mainstream reporters tell the difference between advice and advocacy within the 401(k) world? And, if they can’t, does their reporting ultimately harm 401(k) investors?
Let me be the first to say I know several mainstream reporters, many who specialize in business and finance. These folks would never knowingly go with a story without first asking hard questions. The best ones even know when to seek objective experts to uncover the hard questions that need asking.
They understand their primary shortcoming – they don’t have hands-on experience in all the stories they cover. Sure, over time, they can garner the experience to ask most of the right questions, but they remain astute enough to realize any business is constantly changing. As a result, it’s almost impossible to always know the latest places to hide skeletons.
So financial “illiteracy” may be too harsh a term to apply to these reporters. Truth be told, I don’t think any of them would have written any of the mainstream reports I’ve read.
Which leads to this question: How did the Demos white paper get the broad, unchallenged, coverage that it did? While one may never know the real answer, it is logical to believe the coverage resulted from a very excellent publicity campaign.
It’s almost as if this publicity campaign targeted sympathetic editors, not necessarily business or financial editors. Why? Because the initial reports did not appear in the business press, where white papers usually find their first public exposure.
Indeed, once the financial press started reporting on the Demos white paper, its meme dissolved into a maelstrom of credibility challenges. Had the financial press been the first to write articles on the white paper and focused on these same issues, mainstream editors might have thought twice before blessing their stories for publication.
But, as they say, the cat is out of the bag. Millions of unsuspecting eyeballs are left thinking all 401(k) plans overcharge investors. By coincidence, many of these same eyeballs will begin seeing fees in their 401(k) accounts they didn’t know they were paying.
The most naïve will connect illusory dots and conclude the white paper was right. Once they get there, who knows where they’ll go, but chances are it won’t be a productive place.
Unfortunately, some 401(k) plans are probably being charged too much. But, as the industry argues, many more 401(k) plans are reasonably priced. Fee disclosure should weed out the poorer service providers who don’t offer the value to justify their fees. That’s a good thing.
What’s not a good thing is the mainstream media fomenting a panic under false pretenses. This might lead 401(k) investors and even plan sponsors down a road the DOL has fervently tried to shun: Making the priority to seek the lowest cost provider. The DOL doesn’t want this. The DOL wants plan sponsors to seek providers that offer the best value, not those with the lowest cost.
Dare we say it? Sometimes, if you seek the lowest cost provider, you get what you pay for.